Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thoughts on Scripture: A Stranger Among Us

"The Bible, this ubiquitous, persistent black chunk of a bestseller, is a chink--often the only chink--through which winds howl. It is a singularity, a black hole into which our rich and multiple worlds strays and vanishes. We crack open its pages at our peril. Many educated, urbane, and flourishing experts in every aspect of business, culture, and science have felt pulled by this anachronistic, semibarbaric mass of antique laws and fabulous tales from far away; they entered it queer, strait gates and were lost. Eyes open, heads high, in full possession of their critical minds, they obeyed the high, inaudible whistle, and let the gates close behind them."

These wonderful words are Annie Dillard's from her essay, "The Gospel of Luke." I call them wonderful because they get at something that's important for me: they capture the distance between the world imagined in Scripture and the world we construe for ourselves every day.

Now, I'm the first to admit that some things in Scripture are more than problematic. If I were voting, there would certainly be stories I would toss. I'm with Jesus and many other biblical figures/writers. Not all Scripture is created equal. And part of a critical approach to Scripture is making sense of the diversity of witnesses to God's work in the world found under one cover.

The temptation in this critical task, however, is to domesticate Scripture, to make it all seem accessible or sensible. To make it our next door neighbor or best friend. To think of the Bible as we do a pair of old slippers. When we lose the "queer, strait gates" sense of Scripture, we are at risk of losing God as well.

As Brueggemann puts this, "I propose the stories must be kept in their embarrassing ancientness, for along with the refusal of modernity comes God as a vital and key character in this account of our lives. It is not, so it seems, to modernize the narratives without losing the primitiveness of this character who must be kept as the focal point of 'the news.' The ancient stories of the Bible are indeed sense-making midst our pervasive 'non-sense.'"

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Scripture does not need to be interpreted in relation to our setting. I am not advocating for a literalist reading of Scripture. Far from it. Again, I am offended by some of what I find in Scripture and part of faithful interpretation is struggling with this offense. I am suggesting that the foreign-ness of Scripture is necessary for us to keep from over-identifying our own sensibility with God's. That the strange parts keep us from nesting too quickly. Taken together, they keep the possibility of a God who evades our grasp alive. And this is our only hope.

I think we assume that the first readers of Scripture found it all familiar, given their cultural proximity to its production. But I think otherwise. I think it has always been a strange book. How could it be otherwise and make any pretense as Sacred?

Finally, it seems to me that many modern approaches to Scripture of both the liberal and fundamentalist variety are to make it familiar. Views of inerrancy, for instance, are attempts to make the Bible explainable, stable, neighborly. They may provide some sense of stability, but at the expense of God as a character, and ironically at the expense of Scripture itself.

I am teaching an introduction to the Bible course for undergrads this summer. I will have students for whom the Bible is strange indeed, and students who think the Bible is their neighbor. While I'm hoping to make Scripture a little less strange, I don't want to do that at the expense of the great Stranger who calls us to inhabit a different world.


Stephen Goodall said...

I always pray before I read the Lord's word and thank Him in advance for what He will show me. He never disappoints me. The Lord's word is truth and truth is a spiritual reality and the Spirit of Truth is the One who unveils for us truth. Our minds, in the absence of the Spirit, will twist the Lord's word into our own image.

Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

Admittedly, I get annoyed at scripture; and then, there are times when I am so "in love" with it.